California Report: Zach Sharpe on the Bow Ties, RockyGrass, and the Scroggdogs

Today we talk with San Francisco-based Zach Sharpe, who plays bass in the Bow Ties, Supermule, and Jeff Scroggins and Scroggdogs. He also is your friendly neighborhood solar energy salesman by day, and ping pong champion/bluegrass picker by night.

Hi Zach, tell us how you got into bluegrass.

My early childhood was spent in Zionsville, Indiana. My dad played 26 instruments, but his main focus was guitar and banjo. My mom is a great piano player, but he taught her guitar, and some of my earliest memories were of them singing and playing bluegrass in the living room. Their neighborhood group, the Better Than Nothing Bluegrass Band, would play around town at parties and local events.

At age 50, Dad had a stroke and passed away. Within a few years, we moved in with my new stepfather, Lee Cannon, who lived in Pleasanton, California. There was less bluegrass in the house, and my hobbies of catching snakes and collecting skulls began shifting to skateboarding and girls. However, Mom kept bluegrass (and Indiana) alive for me by taking me to the Fathers Day and Strawberry festivals regularly, and in seventh grade I began playing the upright bass. Her friends took me under their wing, and let me play with them at the regular picks they would have.

That’s great. Your family obviously drove your passion and interest.

Yeah, my parents played a bunch, and two of my older brothers play guitar. After we moved to California, Mom would make sure we would all play and sing together when my brothers and sisters were in town. At holidays, she would – and still does – force the non-Midwestern side of the family to grab instruments – anything: jaw harp, shaker, triangle, whatever – and help back her up on Christmas carols, epic renditions of Salty Dog, or songs that she made up for that particular party. When I was first attempting banjo, she was the only person who would play with me.

What instruments do you play?

Upright bass, electric bass, and banjo.

Tell us about your first instrument.

My first official instrument was trombone in fifth grade band. However, I didn’t really start geeking out on anything until I started playing upright bass in seventh grade jazz band. I was attracted to the low end – that’s always been what my ear focuses on when I listen to music. Plus, it was literally the biggest instrument. I thought that was cool.

What other musical influences do you have?

When I moved to Sacramento for my first job out of college, I met my biggest musical influence ever, Larry Davis. At that point, I was playing electric bass and was digging heavily into R&B and soul. Having spent his career playing in the funk band MacNasty, Larry had plenty to share with a fired up 23-year-old. He not only taught me about rhythm, groove, and music theory, he taught me about soul and expression. He showed me how music can come to life when you lock in with the people you’re playing with.

How did he impact your playing?

After playing with him, I started approaching music differently. It became all about the pocket and the connection I was creating with the other musicians. I think I play bluegrass the way I do because of the way he taught me to play funk. I don’t care if it’s the simplest groove in the world, I’m happy playing the same thing for hours if it’s locking. My first paid gigs were with him, and of anyone, Larry gave me the confidence to bring my full force with me when I step on stage.

What is your personal approach to bluegrass bass?

I really like punching the beat right on the nose. Beat placement took me quite a while to figure out, and I guess it varies based on what mandolin player I’m playing with. But I think bluegrass really starts to drive when both the bass and mandolin are attacking the front of the beat, but are in no rush to get to the next one. I remember I was listening to a live recording of the Bluegrass Brothers playing Blue Ridge Cabin Home, and something clicked. I started playing differently after that. 

Do you prefer bands to smaller ensembles?

I like everything but tend to prefer full bands. My favorite type of bluegrass is the kind that’s loud and in your face, and I feel like you can accomplish that best when you have all the instruments hammering down.

Tell us about the bands you play in?

I’m currently playing with the Bow Ties with Yoseff Tucker (guitar/vocals), Bill Moore (banjo/vocals), Jan Purat (fiddle), and Andrew March (mandolin). I love playing with this crew because everyone brings such good energy to the table, and the band has killer rhythm. Billy and Yoseff have a huge arsenal of traditional songs, heavily Stanleys-focused, and I feel like they show me my new favorite song every time we rehearse.

I’m also in a band called Supermule with Yoseff, Alisa Rose (fiddle), Jim Chayka (banjo), Nino Moschella (drums/vocals), and Mike Emerson (keyboard). This band takes our bluegrass influence and puts it in a completely different context with the keyboard and drums. Nino and Mike bring an entirely different set of influences to the table, and because they are so incredibly badass, they’re able to cultivate a space that allows everyone to experiment and get weird. For some reason, this combination of musicians is able to create some unique stuff, and I’m really happy with the sound that’s coalesced.

As you know I’m also part of Jeff Scroggins and the Scroggdogs which includes Jeff Scroggins, Yoseff Tucker, Scott Gates, and Jan Purat. I can’t wait to see who the voice of reason is. I’m really, really, excited to play with these folks. It’s hard to describe the amount of funk, aggressiveness, unity, and full throttle that these guys bring when we all play together.

Congrats on The Bow Ties winning the 2018 RockyGrass Band Competition, tell us about that experience.

Thank you sir! We were all pretty amped leading up to it, and then once we got to the actual competition, we were kinda looking at each other like “what did we get ourselves into?” The competition was super tough as well, so as it came time to play, we were getting nervous. I realized then that, even though everybody in the band has performed so many times in front of so many different audiences, I had never really seen any of them actually nervous. It was actually pretty entertaining. I got to see a new side of these guys who have been some of my closest friends for a long time. Some of them got real quiet, others could not stop noodling on their instruments. Others couldn’t stop yammering away about absolutely nothing.

What advice would you give to bands entering the band competition?

I would say to be strategic about the song selection, order of songs, and follow the rules of the competition. I think a lot of bands went over the allotted time with their songs, for instance, which I’m sure hurt their score.

Then, when you play, just leave it all on stage. I assure you that you will never play for a more supportive audience. Just performing for that crew at RockyGrass is an experience of it’s own. The camaraderie between the bands is also awesome.

Tell us about the latest Bow Ties recording, Old Morphine?

This album was produced by the one and only Sally Van Meter, who, from the start, put all of us wannabes in check. She heard every little flub or pitchy note, called us out, demanded that we arrange the actual song, made us practice, made us look each other in the eyes when we played, and made us a much, much, better band.

We have a lot of traditional songs on there, but also some originals by Yosef, Jan, and Billy. I love everyone’s playing on the album, and Yosefs vocal acrobatics were seriously highlighted. We had some guest appearances from folks like Brandon Godman, and Nino Moschella of Bird and Egg Studio recorded the whole thing just right. We are extremely psyched on it; check it out! It’s on Spotify.

Have you done much touring?

I was in Front Country and we went on some fun tours all over the country, including the Yukon, so I really got to see different places I probably never would have seen otherwise. Plus, it’s different when you’re traveling in a band; people are typically pretty glad to see you, and hosts really make an effort to show you a good time. I can’t tell you how many nice people I’ve met along the way who were so willing to put us up, feed us, and provide transportation, all because they were music lovers.

What differences did you notice from the California scene?

The folks in smaller towns tended to be my favorite because they usually make for the most rowdy audiences. It was also interesting to see how differently bluegrass is played and received in different parts of the country. There’s the jamgrass territory, Christian life grass, prog-rock grass, contemporary grass, pop country grass, more-trad-than-you grass, folksy grass, old-time, mash, songwriter grass, and jazz grass, to name a few. After seeing all of those, I’m pretty stoked with what we have going on in California.

Tell us about the Monday night bluegrass scene at Amnesia in San Francisco. It seems Amnesia has become a stepping stone to winning the RockyGrass band competition?

Amnesia does have a pretty strong history of cultivating RockyGrass band competition winners, huh? It must be something in the beer or whiskey in the basement. 😉 But really, Amnesia is vital to the bluegrass scene in SF. After Sean left, the new owners stopped serving $3 PBRs, so we almost quit. But they continued to support the bands, jams, and scene, and it is still a thriving hot spot for bluegrass pickers and listeners on Monday nights. It also gets a fair amount of tourists from all over the world who are in town and want to see real American music. There is really no other bar that has this much bluegrass in the City, and I’m very thankful to the ownership, bartenders, bands, listeners, and drinkers who keep it alive and well. 

What shows, events or venues are most memorable for you?

My first gig was at Friends bar in Sacramento. I remember realizing at that show that there was nothing like performing. Two of my most memorable shows were at the Arcata Playhouse with both Supermule and Front Country. There’s something powerful about that venue. The sound is always so dialed in, and the crowd is so engaged. It’s one of those gigs where you leave amped up for days afterward.

Supermule played a Valentine’s Day show at the Freight and Salvage. It was the first time I’d seen them remove seats so people could dance, and people were getting down. Beyond being an honor to play there, it was fun playing a rowdy show with such good sound. Playing at Music City Roots with Front Country made me feel like I was on TV, which was sweet. I also really enjoyed playing the Good Old Fashioned Festival with the Bow Ties.

Have you played any CBA events?

Yes, my most memorable shows have been at the CBA Father’s Day Festival with both Front Country and The Bow Ties. This is my favorite festival on earth, so there’s something automatically more special than other festivals. Plus, the audience is usually full of my best friends and family, so the crowd is always engaged, either heckling or cheering. Plus, we get to pick all night afterward.

What shows of interest do you have coming up?

I’m headed to Ireland with Jeff Sroggins and the Sroggdogs to play some shows for our good Irish friends. Then, in early June, Supermule is going on a mini long-weekend tour of the Pacific Northwest. I’m so glad to be playing with this squad again. By the way, we just released a new album Pretty Little Birds. It’s on Spotify and has a bunch of new original music that I’m super excited to share. Plus, we’re releasing it on vinyl on the tour, which will be my first ever actual record.

Do you have any tips and tricks for players to keep improving?

Not sure I have the resume to give other players advice, but since you asked: Keep in simple, clean, and all about the groove. Listen to silence in between beats and toy with that spacing.

What fiddle tunes do you love?

I love fiddle tunes because the good ones are overflowing with spirit. Old Dangerfield, Dailey’s Reel, and Sally Gooden never ever get old. Coker Creek by Blaine Sprouse and Kenny Baker is also one of my favorites and isn’t played enough. 

Finally for the geeks out there, what instruments do you have, play, and love?

I’ve got an American Standard bass, a Steve Swan special, that I bought new about three years ago. Up until then I was playing the Engelhardt that I got in seventh grade. Steve tracked down all the different parts he wanted, body, neck, etc., and designed this thing. It’s got a real big sound and thumps just the way I like it for bluegrass. It’s plywood, which gives it the thump I like.

What kind of banjo do you play?

I just got a Del Williams custom banjo. He cut all of the metal and designed all the details himself; the metal is all black so it looks great. Plus, it growls. My dad’s banjo is definitely my prized possession. It’s a ‘70s Gibson Mastertone RB250, and it’s got a great sound. Larry Cohea recently tuned it up and it’s sounding better than ever.

What do you do when not playing music?

I sell solar panels and hang with my beautiful wife, Melissa. Just like my music world, I have been able to surround myself with people in my personal life who are way smarter and more talented than me. Plus, she is pregnant with our first child (!!!!!), so you can expect to see some more kid pickers at Father’s Day festival soon.

Being from Indiana, did you ever attend Bean Blossom?

I unfortunately did not, because I left at such a young age. But I know my parents went.

So do you consider yourself more Beatles or Stones?

Man, the Beatles were innovative… They have such a way of capturing and then bombarding you with the atmosphere or emotion of what they are presenting… Listening to them makes my moods swing almost too much. Love the Stones though.

Thanks so much Zach

Thank you Dave!

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.